Saturday, April 28, 2001

Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses

by Bruce Feiler

As the subtitle suggests, the author retraces the Pentateuch as best he can, Bible in hand and affable expert in tow.  Mostly a disappointing book, I’m afraid.  First, Feiler is a rather laborious writer – the 424 pages are packed with rather stilted purple prose at times (his imagery is wild and uninformative: mountains resemble pies, “a drip castle,” “sweet potatoes,” “rancid hamburger meat,” or bizarrely, “melting dinosaurs” [!]).  Second, Feiler is one of those travel writers who feels the need to make every single thing an epiphany: this is okay for places like Mount Ararat, or the possible site of the burning bush; but I counted at least ten places where Feiler recorded a soul-shaking discovery (Egypt isn’t the bad guy in the Bible!, The actual spot where things happened doesn’t matter! “The desert was part of my own geography”! The desert gives you confidence by showing you how small you are! Etc etc).  By the way, he feels fear of that inner geography ebbing away not once, but twice.  Third, Feiler is a rather naive scholar.  He tries to get at the “truth” of the Bible by asking stupid questions about the context of the stories: yes, they really had birthrights that could be sold, for example.  Well of course: the stories don’t take place in a fictional universe, they’re products of their time!  It’s like approaching the “truth” of Dickens by triumphantly showing that people really did talk like his characters in 19th century London.

His naivete is deeper than that: “I basically believed there was a unified notion of God,” he writes.  What?!  He never considered that God differs in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, even within the Bible itself?!  Is he really the best person to write this book?  Obviously not.  There’s a lot that’s very informative and interesting in this tome – ruminations on and possible explanations for manna, Moses’ name, the location of the Sea of Reeds, even the abundance of quail during the exodus.  But there’s too few gems to justify slogging through this mountain of banality, really. 

two stars

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